The D.C. Council on Tuesday confirmed Peter Newsham as police chief, voting 12 to 1 to make the veteran the 30th leader of the District’s crime-fighting force since the department was formed at the start of the Civil War.
Newsham, 52, has been serving as acting chief since Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) chose him to fill in for Cathy L. Lanier, who retired in September after serving for nearly a decade. In February, Bowser named Newsham to lead the police force.
“I am very pleased that they have confidence in my ability to do this job,” Newsham said after the vote.
In a statement, Bowser said that “Peter understands the value of working with the community, he is constantly looking for new ways to increase accountability, and his empathy for those affected by crime drives a sense of urgency around making MPD work better for residents in every ward.”
Three council members who supported Newsham, including former mayor Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), expressed reservations. They cited concerns over differing views of policing and the department’s handling of protests, including mass arrests during January’s presidential inauguration. But those council members said they had overcome their initial hesitations.
Newsham joined the force in 1989 and quickly rose through the ranks, earning a law degree along the way. His confirmation comes as the city is experiencing a crime drop, particularly in assaults and robberies. Challenges remain in reducing homicides and continuing to engage residents. His five-year contract has an annual salary of $253,817.
Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, said Newsham’s nomination “has not only been about the qualifications of this particular nominee, it also has elevated the profile of police interactions and community trust.”
Gray, who abstained on voting for Newsham during committee hearings, said the new chief won him over during extensive meetings. Gray is pushing for the hiring of more police officers and rebuilding the department from 3,800 to 4,000 officers.
Two council members, Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), discussed youthful interactions with police that did not end well, and both said they believed they were treated unfairly because they are black. Speaking broadly, Robert White said, “We have to realize there are many things about our policing policies and our justice system that are broken.”
Trayon White said Newsham recently impressed him while handling the arrest of a 10-year-old boy that had roiled several residents, but ended “to my satisfaction.” He said that encounter left him feeling that Newsham “had the heart to do this job.”
But David Grosso (I-At Large), voted against confirmation. He said he doesn’t believe Newsham fits a department that should promote deep collaboration with neighborhoods. He said as policing across the country moves away from zero-tolerance arrest policies and into a new era of community partnerships, “I want a chief who is visionary and thinks outside the box. I do not see this nominee helping us achieve that.”
Grosso said it is time to end “the perception that more police solve all our problems.”
On Monday, Newsham’s critics continued a last-ditch appeal to slow down the council’s vote as they criticized the department’s arrest of more than 200 people during Inauguration Day protests that turned violent. The group contends that bystanders and law- abiding protesters were swept up indiscriminately.
The critics have compared the Jan. 20 response to mass arrests that occurred under Newsham during demonstrations 15 years ago. In the earlier case, police trapped largely peaceful protesters in Pershing Park and arrested them for failing to disperse. The city ended up paying $11 million in civil settlements.
Newsham said that officers handled 2,400 demonstrations last year and made arrests in “almost none of those.” He said the Jan. 20 situation differed from others because “we had a small riot in our city” by “people who came here intent on destroying property and breaking the law.”
“I hate the fact there are people pushing the false narrative that the MPD indiscriminately arrested people who were here to protest,” Newsham said. He noted that of 230 arrests, a grand jury returned indictments against most.
As he takes over as permanent chief, Newsham said one of his biggest challenges will be retaining and hiring officers, and he noted bills proposed by Bowser that offer incentives to his workforce.
Police have made arrests this year in some high-profile cases, including the slaying of a visiting artist apparently targeted in a random attack on Capitol Hill and the 2009 disappearance of a D.C. woman whose body has never been found. Still, other crimes that have shocked the community remain unsolved. Police have not yet made arrests in this year’s fatal shooting of a teenage college student home from spring break or last year’s killing of a Democratic National Committee staffer.
The confirmation also comes as a grand jury is reviewing the September shooting of a motorcyclist, Terrence Sterling, by a police officer. The shooting, which occurred the same day Newsham became interim chief, has been questioned by Sterling’s relatives and sparked protests.
Bowser’s selection of Newsham over several internal candidates and others revealed a desire to continue the path forged by Lanier and involves cultivating a broad base of community residents and leaders, and frequently engaging the public.
As Newsham advances some familiar policies, he will be doing so with different people. Last month, Diane Groomes, the chief of patrol, announced her retirement. She and Lanier had been one of the department’s most popular members, ubiquitous at community meetings and events. Newsham used her departure to shake up his upper echelon, splitting her duties geographically among two senior officers promoted to patrol chiefs — Lamar Greene and Robert Contee.